The Child at this Moment, the child that Could Become: A Torah Meditation in Wartime

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Dan Ornstein

In the biblical story about Abraham’s banishment of Hagar and Yishmael to the desert, Genesis 21:17 tells us:

God heard the cry of the boy, and a messenger of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”

We are immediately drawn to the anomalous wording, “where he is,” “ba-asher hu sham” in the biblical Hebrew. These words seem to make no sense. If God has heard Yishmael’s dying cry in the desert and the messenger reassures Hagar that God heeds that cry, any reference to Yishmael’s whereabouts is superfluous. Hagar can rest assured that God will find and save her son where(ever) he is. Also, Genesis 21:15 has already told us:

When the water was gone from the skin, [Hagar] left the child under one of the bushes.

We already know, even if with little specificity, where Yishmael is. Why would the Torah reference his whereabouts with even more ambiguity?

The early rabbis assume that Yishmael’s literal location is not intended by these words. Taking the phrase ba-asher hu sham entirely out of spatial context, the midrashic anthology Genesis Rabbah transforms it into a temporal and moral lesson:

“Where he is” – Rabbi Simon said: The ministering angels leaped to condemn [Yishmael] before God. They said before God: “Master of the universe, will You produce a spring of water for a person who is destined to kill your children by thirst?”[1] God said to them: “What is he right now, righteous or wicked?” They said to God: “He is righteous.” God said to them: “I judge a person only at his present time (i.e., where he is now, at this time).” Thus, God commanded Hagar, “Come, lift the boy…” (Genesis 21:18).[2]

What Yishmael and his descendants are to become later in history is irrelevant. At the time of his suffering, the boy is where he is, in a moral place of innocence. Here, God, as it were, establishes the ethical principle later mentioned in the Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shanah 16b):

Rabbi Yitzhak said: A person is judged only according to his deeds at the time of his judgment, and not according to his future deeds, as it is stated regarding Yishmael, “For God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is” (Genesis 21:17).

I have always been troubled by the seeming contradiction between this teaching and that of the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 8:5):

A stubborn and rebellious son is sentenced to death on account of his ultimate end. He should die while still innocent and not die after he becomes guilty.

Based upon Deuteronomy 21:18-21, the case of the stubborn and rebellious son is treated extensively in Sanhedrin (chapter 8), both in the Mishnah and in the ensuing discussions of the Gemara. The Torah demands that we execute such a child because he refuses to listen to his parents and because he is a glutton and a drunkard. The Mishnah and Gemara read these biblical verses so hyperliterally that they could never actually be applied, even if they remain “on the books.”[3] These stop gaps on such cruel, peremptory legal action notwithstanding, the Mishnah is still willing to entertain the theoretical possibility that this child would rightly be put to death. The Gemara explains the Mishnah’s reasoning:

…The Torah penetrated the ultimate mindset of the stubborn and rebellious son and the inevitable results of his actions, and it is understood that he will continue on this path; in the end he will squander his father’s property, and then, seeking the pleasures to which he had become accustomed but not finding them, he will go out to the crossroads and rob people.[4]

Genesis Rabbah judges a child’s moral culpability based on who he is now, not who we presume he will become later in life. Tractate Sanhedrin seems to obliterate that distinction.

Anticipating my discomfort with this contradiction by eight hundred years, R. Hizkiyah ben Manoah (c.1220-c.1260, France) addresses it directly in his Torah commentary, Hizkuni:

“Where he is” – Rashi explained that this refers to Yishmael’s current moral and behavioral state (i.e., where he was at that moment in the desert). We could ask about the teaching in Tractate Sanhedrin that a stubborn and rebellious son is put to death based upon his future presumed behavior. (It implies that God should have let Yishmael die in the desert, because of his evil progeny who would later learn from him.) The response to this is that in the stubborn and rebellious son’s case, his future behavior is inferred from what he already is doing in the present. In Yishmael’s case, he was righteous (i.e., innocent of any evil) when he was younger, regardless of what his descendants would do to us in the future.[5]

R. Hizkiyah’s resolution of the seeming contradiction is itself problematic. He is at liberty to assert that the rebellious child’s current behavior is a legitimate basis for his preemptive execution because he knows that this talmudic case is purely theoretical. Yet, even as “mere theory,” it posits some chilling assumptions about a person’s future culpability due to his current actions as a teenager or young adult. Teshuvah as a part of maturation is erased entirely as a moral possibility from this model. Nonetheless, R. Hizkiyah’s sense of justice is admirable. Like the ancient rabbis before him, he insists on evaluating every person – even the progenitor of a nation who maliciously harmed our people – based solely on that person’s current moral state. Implicit in all these comments about God’s argument with the angels is an overriding imperative of kedushah, holiness: we must emulate God. If this is how God treated the young Yishmael, would we not be duty bound to do the same?

Since October 7, two long-time ideas have gained new traction in some circles. The first asserts that the lives of Israeli Jewish children are forfeit since they are future enemy combatants for the Jewish state who will all eventually be drafted into the IDF. The second, a mirror image of the first, asserts that the lives of children in Gaza are forfeit, since they are future terrorists who will all eventually be recruited by Hamas. One need not create false moral equivalences between the actions of Hamas and of Israel to recognize the dangerous immoral ground of both these assertions. Little children living in Israel and Gaza are not eventually anything in the future. They are only one thing in the present: little children, terrified and traumatized by terrorism and war. Little children under fire in Israel and Gaza may well not become anything in the future, because they risk being only one thing in the present: little children who are dead.

The rabbinic treatment of Yishmael ba-asher hu sham, subject to God’s compassion in the present, is a damning critique of these (and other) extreme ways of thinking. As the current war and its traumas grind on, Yishmael is an excellent model for thinking about how we relate to the innocent victims of all of this violence, even as we defend ourselves against our enemies. Yishmael is the mythic founder of the Arab peoples, and for Muslims he is the progenitor of Islam. Yet, he is also Abraham’s older child, and thus, as close to Isaac and us Jews as our tradition can get. It behooves us to broaden our empathy for the humanity of all children – ours and theirs – ba-asher hu sham, where they are now in their fragile innocence.

[1] This is based upon a midrashic reading of Isaiah 21:13. The tradition associates the Dedanites and Arabians mentioned there with the Yishmaelites. When the Jews were on their way into Babylonian exile, the Yishmaelites deceived them into believing they were giving them water and bread, when in fact they were sending them to their deaths. See Midrash Tanhuma, Yitro 5.

[2] Genesis Rabbah 53:14.

[3] Sanhedrin 71a famously asserts that the case of the stubborn and rebellious son never happened and never will happen. The Torah states it solely for the purposes of exegetical exercise and the rewards ensuing from such Torah study.

[4] Sanhedrin 72a.

[5] Hizkuni on Genesis 21:17. Translation and paraphrase is my own.

Dan Ornstein is the rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, a writer, and a day school Judaic Studies teacher living with his family in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society, 2020).